The vaquita Phocoena sinus is a small porpoise that is endemic to the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most critically endangered marine small cetacean in the world. The most precise estimate of global abundance based on a 1997 survey is 567 (95% CI 177–1073).
Vaquitas mainly live north of 30°45′N and west of 114°20′W. Their ‘core area’ consists of about 2235 km2 centred around Rocas Consag, 40 km east of San Felipe, Baja California. Genetic analyses and population simulations suggest that the vaquita has always been rare, and that its extreme loss of genomic variability occurred over evolutionary time rather than being caused by human activities.
Gill nets for fish and shrimp cause very high rates of by-catch (entanglement) of vaquitas. Estimates of bycatch rates are from 1993–94 and refer to one of three main fishing ports: 84 per year (95% CI 14–155) using only data collected by observers and 39 per year (95% CI 14–93) using combined data from observers and interviews with fishermen. Boats from other ports may experience similar rates, and the total is probably well above what would be sustainable.
Other less well-characterized and longer-term risk factors include the potential for disturbance by trawling to affect vaquita behaviour, and the uncertain effects of dam construction on the Colorado River and the resultant loss of freshwater input to the upper Gulf. However, entanglement is the clearest and most immediate concern.
Progress towards reducing entanglement has been slow in spite of efforts to phase out gill nets in the vaquita’s core range, and the development of schemes involving compensation for fishermen. The Biosphere Reserve in the northern Gulf has fallen far short of its potential for vaquita conservation. On 29 December 2005, the Mexican Ministry of Environment declared a Vaquita Refuge that contains within its borders the positions of approximately 80% of verified vaquita sightings. In the same decree, the state governments of Sonora and Baja California were offered $1 million to compensate affected fishermen. The effectiveness of this major initiative remains to be seen.
The vaquita’s survival does not depend on more or better science but on improved management. As a funding priority, implementation of conservation measures and evaluation of their effectiveness should come ahead of more surveys or improved estimation of by-catch.